Rationalism

Tower Numbers

LIZZIE BARKER provides a counterpoint to the previous article, which will probably upset everyone, with a discussion of whether or not it is rational to believe in God.

The question is often asked as to whether god exists, or not. I think the more important question is whether or not it is rational to believe either proposition.

Obviously, the first objection anyone would come up with is: what’s so great about rationalism? The answer I would give is simply that it’s pragmatic. Rational behaviour and belief have a high rate of correlation with the world, while irrational behaviour and belief simply do not. Put simply: rationalism works. Most people – theists and atheists alike – would hold that being rational and pragmatic is correct. Where theists and atheists disagree, however, is about the rationality of belief. Prima facie, religious belief flies in the face of rationality: It is belief in something which is supernatural. Since it is the case that the only methods we have to interrogate the world are in the realm of the natural, it follows that the supernatural sits outside the realm of rational inquiry.

Thus, the theist and atheist is left with very little evidence for their position, and are forced to engage in metaphysics. Metaphysics is, broadly, the study of those things which empirical study cannot interrogate, either due to the limitations of empirical study, or due to the fact that those things are pre-conditions for empiricism. For example, it is the case that we are all trapped in our own locus, and separated from the world (and each other) by what has been referred to as the veil of perception. Given that empirical efforts rely on perception, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for empiricism to interrogate perception on a fundamental level. This is where metaphysics comes in, the amount written on perception alone in the past 2500 years would fill a good sized library.

Metaphysics employs what is often, in a derrogatory sense, called “armchair reasoning”. There are no experiments, just patient and logical thought. This area is where the battle of the rationality of belief is held. There are three fairly robust metaphysical arguments that have been put forward. The first is the ontological argument: Namely, that (logically) there must be a supreme being, and that being might as well be called “god”. The second is Pascal’s Wager: That given any chance that god exists – no matter how infitesimal – it makes more sense to believe in god, than not. Because if you believe in god, and god exists, then you go to heaven, and if god does not exist, you lose nothing. Conversely, if you fail to believe in god, and god exists, you will go to hell, and if god does not exist, you win nothing. The final argument is broadly called the “Problem of Evil”, namely, that if god is a perfectly good being, and all powerful, then the existence of evil in the world seems at odds with this, as a perfectly good being would seek to eliminate, or at least alleviate, the evil.

Each of these arguments, which present a theist, agnostic, and atheist position, while logically sound if all of the premises are true, are all dependent on certain givens. There are ways to break each argument (I’m sure you’ve all thought of a few) in such a thorough fashion that it may seem our logic chopping has gotten us no where. In terms of the ontological argument, the premise that there must exist a supreme being is faulty in several ways: It is possible for a being to be supreme to all other beings, while still falling short of anything we would call “God”. Think of it like this: Superman is arguably more powerful than any other being in the world of comics (and thus an acceptable candidate for our supreme being), but he is clearly not equivalent to what the various religions describe as “God”. Alternatively, there is no logical necessary reason for there to be a supreme being at all: We all might be as mediocre as one another. Equally, Pascal’s Wager assumes several things about God, while attempting to maintain an agnostic position, in this it is not truly agnostic, but rather theism-maskerading-as-agnostic, which would be largely unacceptable to most theists, most atheists and definitely most most agnostics. Finally, the problem of evil can generally be answered by the relatively simple step of invoking free will: Evil exists in the world because humans have free will, and make choices that result in evil consequences.

Perhaps, then, we can come to this conclusion: Given no empirical evidence either way, and given no definitive logical evidence either way, we must simply accept that belief in god does not concur with rationality. However, before all the atheists start cheering, the lack of belief in god does not concur with rationality, either.

So we’re stuck in this position: Believe what you will (about god), because none of it makes any more sense than anything else.

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